Police Minister Stuart Nash has his “dream” job following Labour’s rise to Government. He talks to Shane Cowlishaw about why he is in favour of police pursuits, the potential of a crack “flying squad” of officers and how he will ramp up the force’s numbers.
Stuart Nash looks like a stereotypical police officer.
He’s broad shouldered, white, and has a grin that would scare young shoplifters back into the arms of their mothers.
But the new Police Minister wants to change that stereotype.
An extra 1800 police officers have been ordered up under the Labour/New Zealand First coalition agreement and the new boss wants more Maori, Pasifika, Indian, and Chinese in the mix.
They are needed, Nash says, because people don’t feel safe in their homes.
He knows this because of the regular street corner meetings he has held in his Napier electorate, where again and again he was told that there were not enough police.
In an age-old election tactic, Labour pledged to beef up police numbers by 1,000 in its first term.
But it has been forced to almost double that number to get New Zealand First onside. Exactly how they will reach that target, or when, remains unclear.
Nash states that in order to reach the number while keeping up with attrition, an extra 1,000 officers a year will be needed.
To reach this number, some may be exempted from the grueling police college training.
Nash gives the example of cyber-crime – why should someone have to go through a physical test to sit in front of a computer?
That means a portion of the new officers could be authorised, rather than sworn in, if they are to work in particularly specialised areas.
The majority, however, will be traditional officers and Nash says he has been given assurances that the police college has the capacity to cope.
Financing the new cops will be the next question. There is room in the budget for an increase, but costs have a tendency to creep and the police is facing serious infrastructure costs such as the dilapidated Auckland Central station.
“Money is always as issue, I’ve never met a Finance Minister who says ‘sure, I’ve got heaps of money, spend whatever you want’, so we do need to put up a really solid business case, there’s no pot of gold at the rainbow.”
Once the money issues have been ironed out, Nash will take the draft policing increase plan on a roadshow of sorts across policing districts, inspired by his own street corner meetings.
The best way to see if something is realistic was to find out what the people who would have to deal with it on a day to day basis thought of it, he says.
“You don’t have to have pips and swords on your shoulder to have fantastic ideas about how to engage with communities.”
Police should have the power to pursue
There will be many challenges in the future as Police Minister, one of which will be a death caused by police giving chase to a fleeing driver.
In New Zealand there are about 300 police pursuits every month, or about 0.1 percent of vehicles stopped by police.
A recent article in Metro revealed some alarming comparisons between our record of pursuit crashes, deaths and injuries and Australia’s.
Two states, Queensland and Tasmania, have moved to ban pursuits for traffic offences and stolen cars.
In Queensland, 11 people died in pursuits in the decade to 2010. In New Zealand in just five years, from 2007-2011, 33 people died.
The Independent Police Conduct Authority and the police are currently undertaking a joint review of pursuits, with a report expected to be made public late next year.
When questioned about New Zealand’s comparison with Australia, Nash retorted that they also had higher crime rates.
With so few police stops ending in pursuits the issue was not a large problem “in the scheme of things” and the deeper issue was why young people were increasingly fleeing officers.
“Having said that, no-one wants to be in the position where the decision they took meant someone lost their life, whether it’s a driver of a car or worst case scenario a driver bowls over an innocent bystander or crashes into an innocent driver but I do trust the police to use their discretion on this and police have a lot of discretion, they can choose to chase or they can choose to pull back.”
He looked forward to the outcome of the review, but was wary of the actions of a public who knew they could evade police.
“If you sent a message out there that police will no longer chase anyone then what you will see is anyone who the police want to pull over who is perhaps drunk or driving without a licence or doing something wrong or perhaps stolen a car, they’ll just run.”
The ‘Flying Squad’
During the election, Winston Peters harvested fresh headlines with the promise of a“flying squad” of elite police officers that would be deployed to crime hotspots.
Consisting of 56 officers and 14 support staff, the team would fall under the command of the Police Commissioner and would deal with “rampant outbreaks of lawlessness and organised crime”.
Most dismissed the proposal as oxygen seeking on the campaign trail, but Nash says he has not completely ruled out the idea.
While raising police numbers would likely address the issue, he was keen to sit down with New Zealand First’s former police spokesperson Ron Mark and find out how they could work and whether they could be trialed.
One thing that will be implemented with the extra numbers is a boost to community policing.
Reduced hours at neighbourhood stations have angered some, and Nash suggested initiatives such as kiosks and small stations within public spaces such as shopping malls could be introduced.
He could not give numbers or a timeframe around community policing, but said it was high on the agenda.
“I think a really big hint is that both Labour and New Zealand First campaigned very hard about community policing and the principles of community policing.”
Help from where you can get it
When Nash arrived in his new office on the 19th floor of Bowen House, there was no handover note from his predecessor waiting for him.
Whilst in opposition he has been a strident critic of not just the then-Government, but also at times the police themselves.
Last year the friction came to a head when police sent a letter of complaint about his behaviour to then-Labour leader Andrew Little following repeated criticisms by Nash of Eastern District Commander Sandra Venables.
Little spoke to Nash, who agreed to focus his fire on the Government.
But Nash says those issues are water under the bridge, simply a by-product of being in opposition and he had already hashed it out with the Police Commissioner.
“One of the first meetings I had with the Commissioner I said, ‘hey, you know, that was opposition, this is politics, we’re in Government (now)’ and he completely understands that and I think most people do.
“I think what you’ll find is this opposition will go equally hard, as that’s the role of opposition.”
Although he didn’t receive a cheat sheet from National, Nash says he won’t be shy about asking for advice when he needs it.
He plans to grab the opportunity with both hands. Police Minister is his “dream” role and without sounding glib, he wants to make a difference.
“Judith Collins and I get on well and I would have no hesitation in giving Judith a call and saying ‘do you have any views on this?’. But the Government had their turn, now it’s our turn.”